Dec 15, 2013 - Liturgical Seasons    2 Comments

What is an Advent calendar?

Advent calendar

Dear Pope Francis,

I wasn’t sure I’d write this post, mostly because I didn’t want it to be mistaken for yet another “war on Christmas” diatribe. Because those make me extremely uneasy. It’s not that I don’t want to be free to celebrate Christmas and wish others a Merry Christmas, without worrying about offending someone. But, those “war on Christmas” warnings have become yet another politicization of the Sacred, and I’m just not down with that.

But, something has been troubling me this Advent. At the same time as I’ve been focusing on what Advent means to me, I’ve been noticing a peculiar trend: the rise of the Advent-calendar-that’s-not-an-Advent-calendar.

When I was growing up, the waiting time of Advent was made just a little bit more bearable by an Advent calendar hanging on the wall. It usually consisted of one large picture of the Biblical Christmas scene — barn, manger, animals, Mary, Joseph, Wise Men. And, of course, the Baby Jesus in the center of things. Poked into the picture were a series of perforated doors, one for each day of Advent, that you’d open up on the appropriate day to reveal another aspect of the events leading up to Christ’s birth.

If you had siblings, like I did, your parents usually set a schedule for who could open the next door — to mitigate bickering, of course. Nerves were taut enough leading up to Christmas, you didn’t need an argument busting out over who got to reveal that day’s Advent blessing.

As I grew up, there were rumours that other kids had CHOCOLATE behind the doors of their Advent calendars. Some didn’t even have the Christmas story on theirs; there were Star Wars, Looney Tunes, Scooby Doo and all manner of kid-themed Advent calendars. I can’t speak from personal experience about those, though. We were strictly observant in our house when it came to the Advent calendar. I can’t say I wouldn’t have wanted a chocolate Advent calendar, or one focused around the holy adventures of Scooby Doo, but it simply wasn’t going to happen in our house.

In recent years, I haven’t given Advent calendars much thought. I don’t have kids, and so never had the need to seek one out. Then my nephew was born and my sister began her annual fall hunt for a religious Advent calendar. They’re harder to find these days than you might think. Her hunt almost always ends with a plea to my mom to go pick one up from our local Catholic book store and mail it to her. We seem to be the only source of religious Advent calendars.

At the same time, there have been a few Advent calendars showing up that have got me thinking about what we call an Advent calendar. Last year, I came across a distillery selling an Advent calendar where each day had its own small bottle of whiskey to find upon opening a door. This year, a brewery got in on the actthough, to be fair, they called theirs a “Snowcase,” but media articles referred to it as an Advent calendar.

I know several people who bought these, and other similar Advent calendars and are currently enjoying sipping their way through to Christmas. That’s fine with me. Whatever gets you through the dark and drearies.

However, to me, these are not Advent calendars and I kind of wish those selling them would find another name. I know Christmas has gone secular, and it’s not technically a religious holiday for everyone. I get that. No worries.

But, Advent, that’s different. Advent names a specific liturgical season that’s all about waiting for the light, for Christ, to come into the world. When you wait, you get quiet. When you wait, you focus on the lack of something that has yet to happen. When you wait, there’s a slight uneasiness, as if you’re not quite complete. Advent is about living in the tension of that uneasiness, that period of incomplete-ness, so when Jesus is born, you can know the wondrous feeling of being whole. This is Advent. It is a season of quiet yearning. Unlike Lent, you’re not usually abstaining from anything, but, still you’re not engaged in conspicuous consumption, either.

What Advent isn’t, at least not for me, is a time of cracking a cold one to make waiting for Christmas easier. If you are counting down to Christmas and presents and family gatherings and turkey, that’s one thing. I have no problem with a tipple each day pulled from behind a little door.

I’m just not so sure that’s an Advent calendar.

Your friend,












  • Quick research shows me that the first mass produced Advent Calendars had images in them but the man who made them, Gerhard Lang, was inspired by one his mother had made him when he was a child. It had sweets inside. So…. I’d say they came full circle.

    That said, I actually started searching because I had no clue what “Advent” was and according to some practices, it’s a little different than December 1-24 because it starts four Sundays before Christmas, so dates could be a little more flexible.

    Anyway, I agree that while I love the idea of the beer-a-day box as a marketing tool, it really isn’t an Advent Calendar.

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

    • Hah Cheryl. Trust you to turn my blog post into an opportunity to do more research. Thanks for this insight! Really interesting. So I guess I could have had a sweet or two in my Advent calendar growing up!

      Yeah, Advent technically starts four Sundays out from Christmas, so it can overlap into November a bit. It moves around depending on what day of the week Christmas falls on.

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